Carnegie Mellon University
June 05, 2024

Social Justice Is Core to Sustainability Efforts at Carnegie Mellon

By Stacey Federoff

Peter Kerwin
  • University Communications & Marketing
  • 412-268-1151

Many initiatives across Carnegie Mellon University show a commitment to sustainability when it comes to areas directly related to the environment.

However, preserving and conserving natural resources are only part of the university’s Sustainability Initiative, based on a framework backed by the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

“Underlying inequities are challenges across social, economic and environmental justice,” said Alexandra Hiniker, director of the Sustainability Initiative. “These cannot be solved by carbon emissions and recycling alone. We need to look at the broader factors addressed by the sustainable development goals in order to really make any progress.”

The 17 Global Goals, cataloged in-depth through dashboards and the annual Voluntary University Review, include working toward reducing inequalities (Goal 10) and poverty (Goal 1) while achieving gender equality (Goal 5) and promoting peace, justice and strong institutions (Goal 16).

Social good through the lens of sustainability is the focus of several educational courses and programs, academic research opportunities and ongoing efforts.

Community Engagement Fellowship puts concepts into practice

“The Sustainable Development Goals, or just this idea or concept of social justice, it can seem really overwhelming and hard to connect to,” said Kimberly Piatt, director of experiential learning with the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences.

To help students overcome this challenge, the college offers the Dietrich Community Engagement Fellowship Program, allowing students to explore projects related to social change as they complete five course blocks and a capstone project.

“The students in this program have learned that they can make local-level impacts and changes in ways that have a ripple effect,” she said. “It brings these higher-level goals and ideals down in a manageable way that they can actually operationalize it and make a difference.”

A collage of images of CMU student Eric Moreno leading a youth soccer camp.

Dietrich Community Engagement Fellowship student Eric Moreno worked as mentor for a youth soccer program. Moreno earned his bachelor's degree in global studies in May.

The program, which accepted applications for its third cohort this spring, focuses on the development of leadership skills and community engagement.

Each 12-student cohort is introduced to the Global Goals during the first course in order to consider which social issues they want to focus on before completing a community-based experiential learning activity, and then developing and implementing a capstone project.

The project includes research and work with a community partner in order to ensure that the impact is lasting, Piatt said.

“Having the hands-on approach and being able to actually be doing things rather than just studying them allows students to more concretely understand the ways in which social justice and social change can occur,” she said. “The stakes are much more authentic and much greater, so you have to think beyond yourself, be humble and engage in your project that way.”

Student projects have included working with the Forbes Funds to connect the Global Goals to the work of local non-profits; establishing a high-school STEM leadership institute for girls, developing a trauma-informed resource guide for working with survivors of child abuse and domestic violence; producing a video to highlight a community garden; and reviving a city-wide hip-hop dance competition, among others.

“One of the things we work through is how students are going to interact with a lot of different people within the community and the students need to recognize that these community members have expertise that is beneficial in different ways,” Piatt said. “Even though you may have been studying this in class as a student, they are living this and so how are you engaging with them to help better understand their experience?”

Taking an active role in student groups that pair sustainability with social good are other ways to connect with the community through Carnegie Mellon.

For example, CMU Sustainable Earth and Thrifty Mellon collaborated on a March event called Slaystainable Styles, a second-hand clothing pop-up on campus with students’ outfits photographed and compiled into a lookbook to encourage sustainable shopping.

And, in order to facilitate projects like those, student groups and community members alike are encouraged to reserve the Nexus of Civic Engagement space inside the Cohon University Center.

"Our aim with the space is to encourage students to raise awareness about social issues or participate in service projects with members of the Pittsburgh community, so sustainability and equity are a part of that," said Meggan Lloyd, assistant director of the Student Leadership, Involvement, and Civic Engagement office (SLICE), which oversees the space.

Hands-on service projects, reflective learning and cultural experiences are also the focus of Pittsburgh Alternative Break, a weeklong program through the SLICE office, meant to allow CMU students to experience social issues impacting the city.

How does sustainability relate to coffee? This class explains

Engaging social justice can also mean considering the impacts of decisions on those who might be hundreds of miles away.

Pouring themselves coffee from cardboard carafes, a group at a recent event led by John Soluri, associate professor of history in the Dietrich College, discussed topics including how the beans are farmed and harvested abroad before being shipped to the United States to be roasted locally.

The “Crafting Coffee” discussion was part of the Coffee Break program through the Hospitality Initiative of Carnegie Mellon’s Center for the Arts in Society (CAS). 

A collage of photos of a group of people meeting to discuss coffee.

Led by John Soluri, attendees at the “Crafting Coffee” discussion discussed topics including how the beans are farmed and harvested abroad before being shipped to the United States to be roasted locally.

“Sustainability is a focus for everyone,” said Scott Miller, head roaster at 19 Coffee Co., who participated along with roasters from La Prima Espresso Co. and De Fer Coffee and Tea. “It’s definitely on everybody’s mind.”

Soledad Cabezas, director of Building New Hope, a nonprofit that partners with sustainable coffee farmers, asked the roasters if they prioritize coffee that has received designations such as shade-grown or bird-friendly.

“There are more certifications every day and we’re always checking them out,” said Chuck Connors, head roaster of La Prima, which sells coffee in Wean Hall and the Gates-Hillman building. “It’s important for people to show that they’re doing something to care for the people producing their coffee.”

Soluri also teaches Coffee and Capitalism, a class where students pour themselves some java before fostering a better understanding of how it got to their cups. The course is supported by a CAS grant.

“After taking the class, I’ve realized there’s so much more to sustainability than just the environment,” said Minyi Ren, who graduated in May with a bachelor's degree in mathematics.

Microcourse in collaboration with University of Pittsburgh considers responsible technology

Korryn Mozisek, special faculty in the Department of English in the Dietrich College, teaches a course on Technology, Humanity and Social Justice in the Heinz College of Information Systems and Public Policy.

The collaboration with the University of Pittsburgh’s Global Studies Center considers a broad definition of technology, led by guest speakers, such as Christopher Phillips, a professor of history who will be the next head of the Department of History, who explained the history of chalkboards.

These weekend microcourses came about in order to be responsive to topics that are multidisciplinary and fast-developing, and are intentionally wide-ranging, she said.

The format allows students from across both Oakland campuses as well as different colleges, majors and class standings within CMU to all participate together.

Each semester, the intensive course, taught over one weekend, focuses on a particular topic related to technology. In addition to the environment, past topics have included governance, health, criminal justice, education and work.

“The guest speakers are able to present their research to a very diverse set of students, offering how the promises of different types of technology have been achieved, while at other times establishing concerns and how they should be regulated,” she said.

Students’ final paper topics have included the impact of data storage on energy consumption and considerations when recycling electronic waste.

“They are using the courses to really think about social justice very broadly and the equitable impacts on people,” she said. “How does technology improve the livelihood of some and harm others?”

Through the Steinbrenner Institute for Environmental Education and Research, students can major or minor in environmental and sustainability studies.

Or, first-year students can focus on sustainability topics during a Grand Challenge Seminar such as a recent one discussing health disparities, specifically the ways prejudice and complex social dynamics impact health.

Promoting energy justice through research

To achieve social justice, whether inside or outside of the classroom, efforts have to be intentional, said Destenie Nock, assistant professor of engineering and public policy and assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering in the College of Engineering.

Research and engagement have to go further than only examining disparities or quantifying impacted populations, she said.

“Social justice is about understanding systematic inequities, finding those inequities, and then coming up with a solution to rectify those inequities,” Nock said. “And so I don't think that it's possible to do it by happenstance.”

Nock studies energy justice, developing metrics to identify people experiencing energy poverty and insecurity, and optimization models to design more equitable power systems.

“In the sustainability space, there’s so much talk about greenhouse gas emissions, but an overlooked area of need are the millions of people struggling to pay their energy bills,” she said. "That’s who I am trying to advocate for."

Questions surrounding housing quality, energy use, and appliance and technology use all led Nock, and her research group of 12 graduate students, to use mathematical modeling tools to address societal problems related to sustainability planning, energy policy, equity and engineering for social good.

Through her work Nock has found that low-income households use less energy throughout the summer months to save money on their bills, which could put these households at risk of heat stroke. There is a need to find these households to connect them to energy services such as bill assistance programs, she said. To accomplish this, Nock has spun-out a company, Peoples Energy Analytics, which finds vulnerable households and connects them to services that can help them pay their energy bills.

“How we think about technology and energy efficiency deployment, while also considering housing upgrades will be very important for addressing our energy transition challenges,” she said.

Sustainability needs to include social good alongside environmental and economic justice in order to be most effective, Nock said, because improving the environment without improving people’s lives will only lead to short-term solutions and may erode long-term support.

“Social justice is an integral part of sustainability that has often gotten sidelined,” she said. “The goal is to make sure that pillar is at the forefront of what we do.”

In order to achieve that goal, Nock said she appreciates the role the university plays in connecting her and other researchers through several resources such as the Wilton E. Scott Institute for Energy Innovation, as well as building bridges to decision- and policymakers across western Pennsylvania and beyond.

“Carnegie Mellon is really good at interdisciplinary work, which has really benefited my research because addressing social inequities in engineering systems requires you to work across departments, disciplines and technical fields,” she said. “At the same time, being connected to the community and getting feedback from people in industry is very important when you want to have societal impact.”